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Perpich Center audit opens larger debate: Does Minnesota still need a separate state agency to support arts education?

After their review of the audit, it seems likely that legislators will move to act first on the fate of Crosswinds Arts and Science School.

The Perpich Center for Arts Education's high school is no longer serving many students from Greater Minnesota, as was originally intended.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Last week, state auditors delivered a highly critical report on the mismanagement of the Perpich Center for Arts Education. Poor governance and financial management, coupled with declining enrollment and poor test scores at the two schools the state arts agency oversees, they said, are cause enough to re-evaluate the scope of the agency.

Issues at the Crosswinds Arts and Science School triggered the two-part audit, which was conducted over the course of several months last year. The Perpich Center took over operating responsibilities for this Woodbury-based 6-10 magnet school in 2014 to save it from closure. Crosswinds had formerly been managed by the East Metro Integration District.

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After their review of the audit, it seems likely that legislators will move to act first on the fate of Crosswinds. Rep. Sondra Erickson, R-Princeton, who chairs the House Education Policy Innovation Committee, has been rather assertive in her assessment that Crosswinds cannot remain under the purview of the Perpich Center board.

“I cannot accept, as chair of an education policy [committee] here in the state of Minnesota, that these children aren’t getting the education that they need and deserve. That just cannot go on,” she said in a phone interview last Friday. “There has to be immediate attention paid there while Perpich tries to work out some issues they have with their own high school.”

Statewide implications

The future of Crosswinds will hold serious implications for the 129 students enrolled there (as of Oct. 1, 2016), as well as their families. But perhaps the issue of greater consequence, at this point, involves the fate of the agency, itself, and the high school it operates in Golden Valley. The agency dates back to 1985 and its signature high school was established four years later.

According to the audit, the agency’s outreach efforts to support arts education in greater Minnesota — a fundamental mandate of the agency — have fallen short of what’s expected for far too long. And its prized arts high school is no longer serving many students from Greater Minnesota, as was originally intended.

These key findings raise much broader questions that lawmakers are now grappling with: Has the Perpich Center become irrelevant in today’s education landscape, where students have more options to pursue the arts? Or does it still serve a vital purpose?

For now, Erickson anticipates Perpich leadership  — which looks a lot different today than it did when things started to unravel — will be invited back to present their plan for moving forward before both state education policy committees on Feb. 23, after they’ve had a chance to conduct their annual board meeting.

In the interim, the state education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, along with Gov. Mark Dayton’s staff, will be asked to weigh in. The Perpich board is composed of 15 members, all of whom are appointed by the governor. And since the Perpich Center is currently tasked with providing guidance on developing local arts standards and providing curricular support for schools statewide, any discussion of dissolving the center could hold implications for the Minnesota Department of Education’s future workload.

While the audit laid out four possible scenarios, many are still searching for additional information. And new ideas are emerging as lawmakers vet the possibility of converting the schools to charter schools, relocating the agency’s outreach efforts to another entity like the state Department of Education, and more.

Mike Zabel and Ahava Silkey-Jones

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Perpich Interim Director Mike Zabel and Perpich Arts High School Principal Ahava Silkey-Jones.

“Right now I just have a report that we have a state agency that’s broken,” Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, who chairs the Senate Committee on E-12 Policy, said in a phone interview Monday. “I think we need to look at what their plans are to get back on track and it’s up to us to determine whether or not that’s sufficient. Certainly we’re going to also take a look at whether or not this is the best delivery model. Is it a better fit now, 32 years later, that we continue to follow this model, or does it need to be updated? I don’t know yet.”

To be clear, he added, even though the audit has raised concerns about the agency’s relevancy, the value of the arts in education isn’t really up for debate.

“We shouldn’t confuse changes in maybe how we deliver or support those initiatives with a lack of support for those initiatives.” he said. “Delivering arts education is different than supporting arts education. We should constantly be looking at how we support our outstate districts — well, all of our districts for that matter.”

A changing education landscape

As recounted in the audit report, the idea of establishing a state arts high school goes back to the 1970s, when a former director of the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies, William LaRue Jones, kickstarted the conversation in an effort to better serve talented arts students.

The late Gov. Rudy Perpich added momentum to the discussion a few years later. He’d become a staunch supporter of arts education — in particular, for students in Greater Minnesota — through serving on the Hibbing School Board and having observed the positive impact of the arts while later living and working in Europe. In 1984 he created a task force to further vet the possibility of investing in a state-run arts high school and resource center. A year later, the Perpich Center was established.

Today, the Perpich model is still unusual. According to a 2016 report published by the Arts Education Partnership, a nonpartisan network of 100 arts organizations across the nation, Minnesota is one of only 20 states that “provides funding for an arts education grant program or a state-funded school for the arts.” In some cases the Perpich Center has served as a model for arts high schools in other states, says Rep. JoAnn Ward, DFL-Woodbury.

“There are a lot of other states that have state art schools,” she said. “And some of them started them after they came and saw Perpich and saw what it was and the potential and the need.”

The Perpich Arts High School in Minnesota, however, no longer has the distinction of being the only public school offering students an immersive arts education. Today, students can also choose from a number of options, including the Art and Science Academy in Isanti, Friendship Academy of the Arts in Minneapolis, Main Street School of Performing Arts in Hopkins, the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists and the FAIR School in Downtown Minneapolis.

While the state Department of Education doesn’t keep a comprehensive list of public schools with a focus on the arts, it’s fair to say the Perpich Arts High School has more competition than it did when it was established. Namely, many of the schools listed above belong to the charter sector, which didn’t exist until 1991.

Encouraged by increasing enrollment numbers the audit reported for a sampling of other Twin Cities-based arts high schools, Rep. Randy Jessup, R-Shoreview, voiced support for winding down management of both schools currently run by Perpich. From a business perspective, he looks at declining enrollment at the Perpich schools and questions whether it makes sense for the state to stay caught up in a market that’s become increasingly competitive.

“Whenever you have waning enrollment, that says, ‘Is there the demand for this type of school that there was some 30 years ago?’ I look at that and I just say, ‘Maybe there’s just not as much interest in this type of school as there was 30 years ago.’ And part of that is really what is available today for these talented arts students. Certainly there are some options in the Twin Cities. What that is outstate, I don’t know.”

Allison Baxter, Grade 12, working on a sculpture.

MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Allison Baxter, Grade 12, working on a sculpture.

In addition to the rise of arts-focused charters and magnet schools, Erickson contends a number of other avenues to arts education have further alleviated pressure on the state to maintain the Perpich Center as it was originally envisioned.

“A lot more has happened in the arts that extends opportunities to our young people. So it’s possible that the Perpich Center of Arts Education today is out of sync, or not necessary because of these other options,” she said. “Besides, it’s a residential school and I don’t think parents are always eager to have their 11th- and 12th-graders live far from home in this day and age.”

Sharing some of the compounding choice factors she’s been considering, when assessing the Perpich Center’s relevancy today, Erickson noted students are taking advantage of Post Secondary Enrollment Options, which allow them to study under the direction of arts professors for postsecondary credit. She also mentioned there’s potential to amp up the amount of Legacy dollars in the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund that are allocated to supporting K-12 arts education.

“What I’ve found over the years is with the Legacy Amendment, we have so many more artists in our areas because they go through their arts boards — that might be in their regions or their cities, or their counties — to receive grants to enhance their skills and then they become teachers of young artists,” she said.

Scope of outreach

In terms of arts education outreach, Erickson doesn’t have a strong sense of what the demand for arts specialists and resources currently looks like in Greater Minnesota. That could be because the Perpich Center has failed to fulfill its outreach mandates, so teachers are simply unaware of what they’re missing out on, she speculates. Or it could be because these teachers are resourceful enough that they no longer lean on a state agency for curricular and resource support.

Whatever the case, lawmakers are mulling over how to best handle the agency’s outreach component. When the agency was established, this element was an integral part of winning widespread support for the initiative, since it has the potential to impact the most students across the state. But, as reported in the audit, “the Perpich Center is not complying with several statutory requirements related to arts education outreach.” And while much of the work that is being done in this area shows “positive impacts,” the auditors estimate it reached only 2 percent of K-12 public school teachers in 2016.

Ward, who initially requested that the audit be done, is hopeful that new leadership at Perpich — a new board majority pending Senate confirmation, along with a new executive director to fill the now vacant spot — will be sufficient to restore this arm of the Perpich Center.

“I have heard from teachers … that mission has not been fulfilled in recent years. But we believe that it can be,” she said. “One of the jobs of the board that’s coming in and getting started on this in response to the audit report [is] they need to do that assessment. What is available? What are the needs?”

If, for whatever reason, the new leadership falls short of her expectations, she adds, the state Department of Education would need to take over the Perpich agency’s outreach objectives, so these resources continue to be available.

Erickson says she’s less optimistic about the slate of new leadership and she won’t support transferring arts outreach efforts to the state Department of Education, which is currently involved in repairing the state’s teacher licensure system, which was deemed “broken” by a state audit last year.

“I’m not convinced this board — this very large 15-member board — is going to be able to turn around Perpich in a few months so that by the start of next school year their reputation is repaired and they are once again seen as a valuable resource in our state,” she said.

Rather, she’d like an independent agency to survey schools across the state to see what the demand for reviving a state-led arts outreach initiative looks like before deciding whether to continue down this path.

As indicated by the audit, Pratt says the Perpich Center is at fault for mismanaging outreach finances. In recent years, the agency had used some of these dollars to help cover administrative costs at Crosswinds.

“The way I look at it, they’ve got sufficient resources,” he said. “They just have to use and allocate them correctly.”

Making a case for revival

Ben Vander Kooi, acting chair of the Perpich board, says he’s helping the agency put together a new plan, a new transition team and a new board structure, which will involve the creation of a number of committees to dive deeper into things like arts outreach and supporting technology in the agency’s arts library. He says lawmakers can expect to see a new strategic plan by March 9, along with a new executive director on board by July 1.

He’s anxious to restore the integrity of the agency for a couple of reasons. First, he’s concerned that resources for arts education would fall by the wayside if housed at the state Department of Education, which is tasked with so many other responsibilities. Secondly, he sees value in maintaining a dedicated state agency for arts education as the climate around the arts, at least nationally, enters a period of greater instability. Under President Donald Trump’s administration, there’s already talk that funding for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities could be eliminated.

“I think there’s a real strength in having an independent agency that has history, that exists already, to keep arts education alive in Minnesota,” he said. “It was incredibly difficult to get this agency created back in the ’80s. … I’m under no illusion that if this goes away that we’re going to get something quickly to replace it. I think this is the vehicle we need to use, from a political standpoint.”

Ahava Silkey-Jones, the new principal of the Perpich Arts High School who came on board in August, is also adamant about the need to maintain the high school and outreach efforts as a state agency.

“It says to the state of Minnesota that this is something that’s important to us. That we’re not willing to let the ebb and flow of what’s trendy get in the way of these institutions existing and furthering these missions,” she said. “I think there’s potential for there to be a lot of disinvestment of the arts, which I, personally, and we as an agency think would be catastrophic for the state of Minnesota and the artists we’re developing here.”

The current structure of the agency, she contends, attracts talented artists and educators from all over the state who are drawn to the opportunity to challenge their practices, engage in arts research, help shape best practices in arts education, collaborate with other artists and feel their impact on lots of different levels. Many have been with the high school for more than 20 years, she says.

“I think those pieces of the puzzle all fit together in a way that they  wouldn’t if it was housed in a different space or operated under a different premise,” Silkey-Jones said. “I think everyone here really operates under the assumption or mission that we’re doing this for something greater than ourselves, or greater than our schools, or even greater than our city.”

Acknowledging the criticism of the current scope of the agency’s outreach efforts, she says it may be time to revisit the statute, as research has shown that “going deep” may be more valuable than simply offering “contact hours” for teachers outside of the agency.

“Some of the focus of our outreach has shifted based on what we’re able to do as an agency given the funding that we have, but also [based on] how can we be most effective in how we use those pieces,” she said.

There are other changes under way as well. At the Perpich High School, leaders are taking a critical look at the admissions process and exploring ways to make it more accessible to all students, without compromising the integrity of having a competitive admissions process. This year, with a new admissions staff person on board, that means adding a secondary deadline in May to fill any remaining spots and reimagining how they recruit talented arts students from Greater Minnesota.

“The narrative of the school has been so powerful, historically, that advertising’s had to look very different,” she said. “It’s one or two students from each high school or each town that this is the golden key. And if we had that, the building would be overflowing,” she said. “For whatever reason … there’s been a disconnect in recent years between the students that should be here and getting them here. So we plan to tackle it from all angles.”